Tuesday, June 18, 2024 -
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Endowments are not forever

The unimaginable sums of tzedakah lost by Bernard Madoff, not to mention the trillions lost in the stock market, set me to thinking about “secure” investments.

My purpose is not to discourage people from establishing or contributing to endowment funds. They are a worthy and effective vehicle for one’s tzedakah, if managed with all the appropriate safeguards. All reports suggest that the communal endowment funds in the Jewish community meet this high bar. My purpose here is to make a philosophical, or perhaps the better word is theological, point.

Endowment funds are not forever for the simple reason that nothing is forever. There is, however, often a sense that with an endowment, I really can take it with me.

I can outwit G-d.

I can be an actor when I’m no longer an actor — when I’m dead.

I can control events.

I can predict the future, because I know just what will be needed.

Endowments have become an idee fixe, the new eternity. My money will speak for me in the world-to-come. And take that last phrase in its double sense: My money will stand me in good stead in the afterlife, and my money will speak for me in the lives I leave behind. Now, in some sense, both of these propositions are true. Tzedakah is perhaps the only item I can carry with me into the next life; and, often, tzedakah, does benefit those who survive me.

Even so, there are no permanent endowments. I can never be certain that my intentions behind my tzedakah are perfectly selfless, nor might I give as much as Jewish law requires, or to causes that have meaning beyond my idiosyncrasies.

Tzedakah, in short, requires thought, not just emotion, and it is not an easy task to purify emotions and get them to the right place, especially when it comes to money.

And benefiting my survivors? What looks like the right cause now may evaporate, or at least change.

Happens all the time.

I have in front of me a list of hundreds of journalism scholarships. Many are so tightly drawn or, from the perspective of 2009, so oddly drawn, that they actually are never awarded, or do not fulfill their stated intention.

There is, for example, a scholarship for budding Hispanic journalists. Like many endowments and scholarships established by people wishing to accomplish a very specific goal, the criteria for this scholarship leaves the field of applicants empty, or almost so. Thus, in one case, a budding journalist who was not Hispanic, knew no Spanish, had no experience in the Hispanic community, and no intention of covering or advancing Hispanic stories, nonetheless won the scholarship on the grounds that her grandfather, a journalist, had advanced the Hispanic cause.

Happens all the time.

Yet, the human being thirsts for eternity — for a permanent footprint.

The human being wants to make a difference, wants to be remembered, wants some mark of his life to survive the decay of his body.

This thirst can deceive.

I can think: I did it. I left the money. I made certain that “it” — whatever my cause is — will continue.

As I say, I would never wish to discourage anyone from leaving money to tzedakah, but if there is an exercise in human life that requires selflessness and humility, tzedakah is one. I cannot know what the future will bring, let alone determine, shape, control or manipulate it.

I can’t do it, and neither can anyone else. No one is that smart. You can’t outwit G-d, and an endowment is not a substitute for reliance on G-d.

Yale University has lost approximately $5 billion in its endowment in the past nine months.

The Washington, DC, federation lost $10 million to Bernard Madoff.

J. Ezra Merkin lost, it seems, $1.8 billion.

These are unpredictable developments — the very “future” that donors fallaciously felt was absolute, guaranteed, “secure.”

There are no guarantees, not when one is alive, all the more so after one has passed.

The bottom line? Give because you are supposed to give. Give because it’s the right thing to do. Give to help. It is the service of G-d. It is what is required of us. It is not, however, a magical telescope to illumine the future and let us know just what the future needs will be, let alone enable us to control the way the future will turn out, forever.

Give, designate, dream, help — but also realize that even with every t crossed and every i dotted, there is no such thing as a perfectly “secure” tzedakah plan.

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